John Rieping/The Madera Tribune
Madera County Supervisor Max Rodriguez, center, talks about issues on which he feels local governments should collaborate. Listening are mayors, members of the city councils of Chowchilla and Madera, and District 5 Supervisor Brett Frazier.
In a first-of-it’s kind workshop, members of the Madera County Board of Supervisors, mayors and members of the Madera and Chowchilla city councils and their staffs gathered to discuss shared challenges such as homelessness, ground water sustainability, high-speed rail, and jointly lobbying the state for expansion of State Route 99 into three lanes.
No action was taken at the Saturday morning workshop hosted by the Board of Supervisors at the Madera Municipal Golf Course. But the multiagency group agreed to prioritize some issues and meet in smaller numbers quarterly.
According to workshop organizers, ignoring chronic issues doesn’t work, but the benefits of collaboration can be enormous. The county and its cities have often viewed each other uneasily, competing over every dime in sales tax rather than combining resources, but those days were past, they said, and more was to be gained by speaking with one voice.
The 9 a.m. meeting also drew about 15 residents, most concerned with the detrimental effects of the growing number of homeless people in their neighborhoods along Raymond Road, just north of the Tozer Street Bridge. Six to eight residents left in frustration after waiting more than two hours to speak on homelessness, saying they wished the participants well and would like to have to contributed, but they had heard enough of politicians, without any answers.
Madera County Supervisor Brett Frazier (District 1) said that while he thought the challenges facing all of Madera County were immense, Madera was also poised for expansive growth due to it’s central and affordable location. “This meeting is a good start. Building trust (between agencies) always is. We are not separate people, and we need to pull together where we can. Not having the money is not an excuse. Let’s put the past in the past,” he said. Frazier previously served on the Madera City Council.
Madera Mayor Andy Medellin said the city was very open to new ideas regarding chronic homelessness, along with the proposals to share a common vision and resources.
“I am encouraged and inspired by what I saw here today.” Medellin said. “It’s a great start and a great plan. But the true test is what we do (together) from here. It will be totally useless if we do not continue to move forward and implement the plans we outlined today.
“This exercise was really about bringing those issues that are most important to Madera to the forefront. And obviously, after today we recognized homelessness is one of them. We also recognized we are all in this together,” he said.
Medellin said the city of Madera would host a public workshop on chronic homelessness on Oct. 25 as part of the Vision 2025 plan.
Resident April Molina, who lives one block north of the city limit, described her experience in the area for the last 18 years.
“Where I live, my children have seen things no child should ever have to see.” Molina said, and when on to described in shocking shootings, a beating with a hammer, drunk-driving accidents, intimidation, prostitution and constant drug deals, and brush fires.
“My children were the only witnesses to a shooting right outside our house. We had a detective in our home at 10:30 at night asking them questions. They were 9 and 14 at the time.” Molina said,
“Some are harmless vagabonds that move along. But the majority are violent ... and addicted to narcotics, alcohol and sex,” she asserted.
Molina said she had seen some improvement after recent cleanup efforts along the riverbed and suggested raising homeless awareness, remove brush and trees in the riverbed, combine city and county jurisdictions, offer employment, and review ordinances and increase sentences for repeat offenders, among other ideas.
North county resident Steve Elkins spoke on the need for mandatory trash service in the county, and the appalling conditions of the homeless in the riverbed near Tozer bridge.
“I am tired of seeing people drive down a county road and dump their garbage just because they don’t want to pay for it,” he said. “Madera county roads should not be a dumping grounds for couches, mattresses and trash, but that’s what they do.”
Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney said his office was also open to all ideas regarding chronic homelessness and currently had a two-prong approach, and several deputies tasked to the issue.
“We understand and try to work with the homeless. It’s a complex problem. On one side you are trying to help people get out of homelessness with compassion (outreach and other efforts), but on the other side let them know there will be some consequences if they continue to engage in even low levels of criminal behaviors like trespassing, squatting, etc.” he said.
Varney said 15 tons of discarded belongings, debris and household trash was recently hauled out of a large homeless encampment in the Madera foothills, after a group of illegal squatters was evicted from the area.
Varney also said he thought coordinating city and county policies and ordinances would help, and the brush lining the riverbed should be cut, but said the State Department of Fish and Game required permits, review and strictly limited what brush could be removed.
Supervisor Max Rodriquez said squatters had been breaking into and found living in vacant homes, and the homeless had recently been organizing into separate gangs under separate bridges, and commenting the issues were serious and “... something needs to be done before somebody gets killed,” he said.
A group with MaderaVotes.com spoke about privatizing the use of water, and suggested the use of resources and compassion in dealing with the homeless.
Chowchilla City Council Member Dennis Heyworth mentioned the need to set aside differences, develop a joint strategy and join forces to bring state attention to “the dangerous situation we call the ‘choke point’ or the transition area from SR 99 to SR 152.” he said.
“There isn’t a week that goes by that there isn’t a serious accident out there. Fresno has three lanes or more. Merced also does. It’s Madera County that’s been long ignored (regarding SR 99 improvements), and it’s time to get together and change that,” Heyworth said.
Heyworth also mentioned sustainable groundwater sources and policies, and reiterated his strong opposition to high-speed rail, but said he was now resigned to dealing with and trying to reduce the “negative impacts” of HSR on the city of Chowchilla and surrounding area.
E’Mira Torres of the Madera Association of Realtors spoke on the need to attract all kinds of new residential development to the area to meet current and increasing housing needs.
The idea of consolidation of the dispatch centers for the Sheriff’s Department, police departments and ambulance services was also discussed as a way to reduce costs and eliminate the duplication of services.